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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Dr. Johnson

By Augustine Birrell (1850–1933)

From ‘Obiter Dicta’

“CRITICISM,” writes Johnson in the 60th Idler, “is a study by which men grow important and formidable at a very small expense. The power of invention has been conferred by nature upon few, and the labor of learning those sciences which may by mere labor be obtained, is too great to be willingly endured: but every man can exert such judgment as he has upon the works of others; and he whom nature has made weak, and idleness keeps ignorant, may yet support his vanity by the name of a critick.”

To proceed with our task by the method of comparison is to pursue a course open to grave objection; yet it is forced upon us when we find, as we lately did, a writer in the Times newspaper, in the course of a not very discriminating review of Mr. Froude’s recent volumes, casually remarking, as if it admitted of no more doubt than the day’s price of consols, that Carlyle was a greater man than Johnson. It is a good thing to be positive. To be positive in your opinions and selfish in your habits is the best recipe, if not for happiness, at all events for that far more attainable commodity, comfort, with which we are acquainted. “A noisy man,” sang poor Cowper, who could not bear anything louder than the hissing of a tea-urn, “a noisy man is always in the right,” and a positive man can seldom be proved wrong. Still, in literature it is very desirable to preserve a moderate measure of independence, and we therefore make bold to ask whether it is as plain as the “old hill of Howth” that Carlyle was a greater man than Johnson? Is not the precise contrary the truth? No abuse of Carlyle need be looked for, here or from me. When a man of genius and of letters happens to have any striking virtues, such as purity, temperance, honesty, the novel task of dwelling on them has such attraction for us that we are content to leave the elucidation of his faults to his personal friends, and to stern, unbending moralists like Mr. Edmund Yates and the World newspaper. To love Carlyle is, thanks to Mr. Froude’s superhuman ideal of friendship, a task of much heroism, almost meriting a pension; still it is quite possible for the candid and truth-loving soul. But a greater than Johnson he most certainly was not.

There is a story in Boswell of an ancient beggar-woman who, whilst asking an alms of the Doctor, described herself to him, in a lucky moment for her pocket, as “an old struggler.” Johnson, his biographer tells us, was visibly affected. The phrase stuck to his memory, and was frequently applied to himself. “I too,” so he would say, “am an old struggler.” So too, in all conscience, was Carlyle. The struggles of Johnson have long been historical; those of Carlyle have just become so. We are interested in both. To be indifferent would be inhuman. Both men had great endowments, tempestuous natures, hard lots. They were not amongst Dame Fortune’s favorites. They had to fight their way. What they took they took by storm. But—and here is a difference indeed—Johnson came off victorious, Carlyle did not.

Boswell’s book is an arch of triumph, through which, as we read, we see his hero passing into eternal fame, to take up his place with those—

  • Dead but sceptred sovereigns who still rule
  • Our spirits from their urns.”
  • Froude’s book is a tomb over which the lovers of Carlyle’s genius will never cease to shed tender but regretful tears.

    We doubt whether there is in English literature a more triumphant book than Boswell’s. What materials for tragedy are wanting? Johnson was a man of strong passions, unbending spirit, violent temper, as poor as a church-mouse, and as proud as the proudest of Church dignitaries; endowed with the strength of a coal-heaver, the courage of a lion, and the tongue of Dean Swift, he could knock down booksellers and silence bargees; he was melancholy almost to madness, “radically wretched,” indolent, blinded, diseased. Poverty was long his portion; not that genteel poverty that is sometimes behindhand with its rent, but that hungry poverty that does not know where to look for its dinner. Against all these things had this “old struggler” to contend; over all these things did this “old struggler” prevail. Over even the fear of death, the giving up of “this intellectual being,” which had haunted his gloomy fancy for a lifetime, he seems finally to have prevailed, and to have met his end as a brave man should.

    Carlyle, writing to his wife, says, and truthfully enough, “The more the devil worries me the more I wring him by the nose;” but then if the devil’s was the only nose that was wrung in the transaction, why need Carlyle cry out so loud? After buffeting one’s way through the storm-tossed pages of Froude’s ‘Carlyle,’—in which the universe is stretched upon the rack because food disagrees with man and cocks crow,—with what thankfulness and reverence do we read once again the letter in which Johnson tells Mrs. Thrale how he has been called to endure, not dyspepsia or sleeplessness, but paralysis itself:—

    “On Monday I sat for my picture, and walked a considerable way with little inconvenience. In the afternoon and evening I felt myself light and easy, and began to plan schemes of life. Thus I went to bed, and in a short time waked and sat up, as has long been my custom; when I felt a confusion in my head which lasted, I suppose, about half a minute; I was alarmed, and prayed God that however much He might afflict my body He would spare my understanding…. Soon after I perceived that I had suffered a paralytic stroke, and that my speech was taken from me. I had no pain, and so little dejection in this dreadful state that I wondered at my own apathy, and considered that perhaps death itself, when it should come, would excite less horror than seems now to attend it. In order to rouse the vocal organs I took two drams…. I then went to bed, and strange as it may seem I think slept. When I saw light it was time I should contrive what I should do. Though God stopped my speech, He left me my hand. I enjoyed a mercy which was not granted to my dear friend Lawrence, who now perhaps overlooks me as I am writing, and rejoices that I have what he wanted. My first note was necessarily to my servant, who came in talking, and could not immediately comprehend why he should read what I put into his hands…. How this will be received by you I know not. I hope you will sympathize with me; but perhaps

  • “‘My mistress, gracious, mild, and good,
  • Cries—Is he dumb? ’Tis time he should.’
  • “I suppose you may wish to know how my disease is treated by the physicians. They put a blister upon my back, and two from my ear to my throat, one on a side. The blister on the back has done little, and those on the throat have not risen. I bullied and bounced (it sticks to our last sand), and compelled the apothecary to make his salve according to the Edinburgh dispensatory, that it might adhere better. I have now two on my own prescription. They likewise give me salt of hartshorn, which I take with no great confidence; but I am satisfied that what can be done is done for me. I am almost ashamed of this querulous letter, but now it is written let it go.”

    This is indeed tonic and bark for the mind.

    If, irritated by a comparison that ought never to have been thrust upon us, we ask why it is that the reader of Boswell finds it as hard to help loving Johnson as the reader of Froude finds it hard to avoid disliking Carlyle, the answer must be that whilst the elder man of letters was full to overflowing with the milk of human kindness, the younger one was full to overflowing with something not nearly so nice; and that whilst Johnson was pre-eminently a reasonable man, reasonable in all his demands and expectations, Carlyle was the most unreasonable mortal that ever exhausted the patience of nurse, mother, or wife.

    Of Dr. Johnson’s affectionate nature nobody has written with nobler appreciation than Carlyle himself. “Perhaps it is this Divine feeling of affection, throughout manifested, that principally attracts us to Johnson. A true brother of men is he, and filial lover of the earth.”

    The day will come when it will be recognized that Carlyle, as a critic, is to be judged by what he himself corrected for the press, and not by splenetic entries in diaries, or whimsical extravagances in private conversation.

    Of Johnson’s reasonableness nothing need be said, except that it is patent everywhere. His wife’s judgment was a sound one—“He is the most sensible man I ever met.”

    As for his brutality, of which at one time we used to hear a great deal, we cannot say of it what Hookham Frere said of Lander’s immorality, that it was—

  • “Mere imaginary classicality
  • Wholly devoid of criminal reality.”
  • It was nothing of the sort. Dialectically the great Doctor was a great brute. The fact is, he had so accustomed himself to wordy warfare that he lost all sense of moral responsibility, and cared as little for men’s feelings as a Napoleon did for their lives. When the battle was over, the Doctor frequently did what no soldier ever did that I have heard tell of,—apologized to his victims and drank wine or lemonade with them. It must also be remembered that for the most part his victims sought him out. They came to be tossed and gored. And after all, are they so much to be pitied? They have our sympathy, and the Doctor has our applause. I am not prepared to say, with the simpering fellow with weak legs whom David Copperfield met at Mr. Waterbrook’s dinner-table, that I would sooner be knocked down by a man with blood than picked up by a man without any; but, argumentatively speaking, I think it would be better for a man’s reputation to be knocked down by Dr. Johnson than picked up by Mr. Froude.

    Johnson’s claim to be the best of our talkers cannot, on our present materials, be contested. For the most part we have only talk about other talkers. Johnson’s is matter of record. Carlyle no doubt was a great talker—no man talked against talk or broke silence to praise it more eloquently than he, but unfortunately none of it is in evidence. All that is given us is a sort of Commination Service writ large. We soon weary of it. Man does not live by curses alone.

    An unhappier prediction of a boy’s future was surely never made than that of Johnson’s by his cousin, Mr. Cornelius Ford, who said to the infant Samuel, “You will make your way the more easily in the world as you are content to dispute no man’s claim to conversation excellence, and they will, therefore, more willingly allow your pretensions as a writer.” Unfortunate Mr. Ford! The man never breathed whose claim to conversation excellence Dr. Johnson did not dispute on every possible occasion; whilst, just because he was admittedly so good a talker, his pretensions as a writer have been occasionally slighted.

    Johnson’s personal character has generally been allowed to stand high. It, however, has not been submitted to recent tests. To be the first to “smell a fault” is the pride of the modern biographer. Boswell’s artless pages afford useful hints not lightly to be disregarded. During some portion of Johnson’s married life he had lodgings, first at Greenwich, afterwards at Hampstead. But he did not always go home o’ nights; sometimes preferring to roam the streets with that vulgar ruffian Savage, who was certainly no fit company for him. He once actually quarreled with Tetty, who, despite her ridiculous name, was a very sensible woman with a very sharp tongue, and for a season, like stars, they dwelt apart. Of the real merits of this dispute we must resign ourselves to ignorance. The materials for its discussion do not exist; even Croker could not find them. Neither was our great moralist as sound as one would have liked to see him in the matter of the payment of small debts. When he came to die, he remembered several of these outstanding accounts; but what assurance have we that he remembered them all? One sum of £10 he sent across to the honest fellow from whom he had borrowed it, with an apology for his delay; which, since it had extended over a period of twenty years, was not superfluous. I wonder whether he ever repaid Mr. Dilly the guinea he once borrowed of him to give to a very small boy who had just been apprenticed to a printer. If he did not, it was a great shame. That he was indebted to Sir Joshua in a small loan is apparent from the fact that it was one of his three dying requests to that great man that he should release him from it, as, of course, the most amiable of painters did. The other two requests, it will be remembered, were to read his Bible, and not to use his brush on Sundays. The good Sir Joshua gave the desired promises with a full heart, for these two great men loved one another; but subsequently discovered the Sabbatical restriction not a little irksome, and after a while resumed his former practice, arguing with himself that the Doctor really had no business to extract any such promise. The point is a nice one, and perhaps ere this the two friends have met and discussed it in the Elysian fields. If so, I hope the Doctor, grown “angelical,” kept his temper with the mild shade of Reynolds better than on the historical occasion when he discussed with him the question of “strong drinks.”

    Against Garrick, Johnson undoubtedly cherished a smoldering grudge, which, however, he never allowed any one but himself to fan into flame. His pique was natural. Garrick had been his pupil at Edial, near Lichfield; they had come up to town together with an easy united fortune of fourpence—“current coin o’ the realm.” Garrick soon had the world at his feet and garnered golden grain. Johnson became famous too, but remained poor and dingy. Garrick surrounded himself with what only money can buy, good pictures and rare books. Johnson cared nothing for pictures—how should he? he could not see them; but he did care a great deal about books, and the pernickety little player was chary about lending his splendidly bound rarities to his quondam preceptor. Our sympathies in this matter are entirely with Garrick; Johnson was one of the best men that ever lived, but not to lend books to. Like Lady Slattern, he had a “most observant thumb.” But Garrick had no real cause for complaint. Johnson may have soiled his folios and sneered at his trade, but in life Johnson loved Garrick, and in death embalmed his memory in a sentence which can only die with the English language:—“I am disappointed by that stroke of death which has eclipsed the gayety of nations, and impoverished the public stock of harmless pleasure.”

    Will it be believed that puny critics have been found to quarrel with this colossal compliment on the poor pretext of its falsehood? Garrick’s death, urge these dullards, could not possibly have eclipsed the gayety of nations, since he had retired from the stage months previous to his demise. When will mankind learn that literature is one thing, and sworn testimony another?…

    Johnson the author is not always fairly treated. Phrases are convenient things to hand about, and it is as little the custom to inquire into their truth as it is to read the letterpress on bank-notes. We are content to count bank-notes and to repeat phrases. One of these phrases is, that whilst everybody reads Boswell, nobody reads Johnson. The facts are otherwise. Everybody does not read Boswell, and a great many people do read Johnson. If it be asked, What do the general public know of Johnson’s nine volumes octavo? I reply, Beshrew the general public! What in the name of the Bodleian has the general public got to do with literature? The general public subscribes to Mudie, and has its intellectual, like its lacteal sustenance, sent round to it in carts. On Saturdays these carts, laden with “recent works in circulation,” traverse the Uxbridge Road; on Wednesdays they toil up Highgate Hill, and if we may believe the reports of travelers, are occasionally seen rushing through the wilds of Camberwell and bumping over Blackheath. It is not a question of the general public, but of the lover of letters. Do Mr. Browning, Mr. Arnold, Mr. Lowell, Mr. Trevelyan, Mr. Stephen, Mr. Morley, know their Johnson? “To doubt would be disloyalty.” And what these big men know in their big way, hundreds of little men know in their little way. We have no writer with a more genuine literary flavor about him than the great Cham of literature. No man of letters loved letters better than he. He knew literature in all its branches—he had read books, he had written books, he had sold books, he had bought books, and he had borrowed them. Sluggish and inert in all other directions, he pranced through libraries. He loved a catalogue; he delighted in an index. He was, to employ a happy phrase of Dr. Holmes, at home amongst books as a stable-boy is amongst horses. He cared intensely about the future of literature and the fate of literary men. “I respect Millar,” he once exclaimed; “he has raised the price of literature.” Now Millar was a Scotchman. Even Horne Tooke was not to stand in the pillory: “No, no, the dog has too much literature for that.” The only time the author of ‘Rasselas’ met the author of the ‘Wealth of Nations’ witnessed a painful scene. The English moralist gave the Scotch one the lie direct, and the Scotch moralist applied to the English one a phrase which would have done discredit to the lips of a costermonger; but this notwithstanding, when Boswell reported that Adam Smith preferred rhyme to blank verse, Johnson hailed the news as enthusiastically as did Cedric the Saxon the English origin of the bravest knights in the retinue of the Norman king. “Did Adam say that?” he shouted: “I love him for it. I could hug him!” Johnson no doubt honestly believed he held George III. in reverence, but really he did not care a pin’s fee for all the crowned heads of Europe. All his reverence was reserved for “poor scholars.” When a small boy in a wherry, on whom had devolved the arduous task of rowing Johnson and his biographer across the Thames, said he would give all he had to know about the Argonauts, the Doctor was much pleased, and gave him, or got Boswell to give him, a double fare. He was ever an advocate of the spread of knowledge amongst all classes and both sexes. His devotion to letters has received its fitting reward, the love and respect of all “lettered hearts.”